Teaching Opinion

Democracy Schools Require Compromise

By Deborah Meier — March 10, 2016 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

The trouble is: We’re not naturally born Democrats. It may (I hope) not be unnatural, but it’s clear as we look round the world, starting here at home, that it’s not an easy proposition. Especially once one includes folks who aren’t one’s natural colleagues and friends in the body politic (a rather new idea), and once the scale gets beyond being able to fit into one room. In schools, after all, I think it’s hard if the particular actors involved can’t sit around a large table where they can all see each other. So, it’s like flat maps; they never work perfectly and are always distorted in some ways.

So there’s compromises built in from the start. Majority rule isn’t writ in stone, nor is “consensus"—not to mention what in the world that truly means. At Mission Hill we adopted a “fist of five” rule for consensus. Any faculty member could veto a proposal that required their collaboration. But you only needed two to five fingers to go ahead. Only one finger required more talk. Two or more indicted levels of tolerability! And even then, we had a week to reconsider while we tried to find a workable compromise.

And we had a table big enough—if we excluded parents, kids, custodians, lunchroom staff, and part-timers from the table, or, if they came, excluded them from the “rule.” Not an ideal solution.

In our school-wide governing body, students, staff, and families each elected five members, and then, collectively, we added five community members. Any three of the five could veto some of what we thought were critical issue, like choosing a principal, changing the annual or daily school hours, a major change in curriculum design, admissions policies, changes in the governance structure, and a host of other thing which equally affected us. But there were many other issues that were decided by a quick show of hands, or strictly by the parents or the faculty meeting separately. We even decided that the budget proposal for the year, and any changes in it, had to be initiated by the faculty.

Each of these decisions required us to think about the trade-offs. It became second nature. It fed back into classroom practices and made us acutely conscious of how complicated it is to speak of “self-governing"—for, by, and of “the people.”

In retrospect I wish we had played out Robert’s Rules of Order in some fashion so that we understood better how voting takes place in state and national legislatures. It might also be interesting to get a piece of legislation and see how long and detailed they often are and ask around about how many congresspersons actually read the whole thing. I think No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was longer than War and Peace—and somewhat less well written. It’s easier to see how a powerful and rich donor can get someone to slip in a small extra point into a piece of dense legislation.

Looking at other governance documents and seeing alternate trade-offs would also be useful. And who gets to interpret the rules when the original authors are gone? When we send kids out to work sites we try to push them to discover who decides what in their job site? What’s the formal system and how does it mostly actually work?

The five habits of mind are useful in exploring all these issues, and ideally we will all start looking at all the informal rules we live with, the power relationships that often determine rules without any formal right to do so. Power in even a classroom (or family) is often subtle, but worth exploring.

Then, as you remind, yes, Harry, there are assumptions built into the culture that provide (or do not) meaning to all of these, like the ones you outlined in your last letter.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.